It was November 1970. I was located about 44º54’N, 71º5’W. I know that now because I have GoogleEarth to refer to, but I sure didn’t know it then. I was somewhere in a swampy thicket west of the Dead Diamond River in the Dartmouth College Grant, and with darkness coming on, needed to get back to camp pretty soon. I knew if I followed my compass east, I’d cross the river somewhere and a bit later strike the north-south road on the far side. I plowed east.
Sure enough, in a quarter of an hour, I hit the river, flowing left to right, just as it was supposed to, its smooth, black current swollen by rain. I waded across and squished onward. But a few minutes later, I struck it again, this time flowing right to left. Uh-oh. The compass was still pointing where I figured it ought to. I remember channeling Cassius as I slid down the bank: “... accoutered as I was, I plungéd in.” Five minutes later — it was almost a relief, because by now I suspected what was going on — I came to it again, flowing the way it was supposed to, left to right.
I got back to camp well after dark, pretty wet and muddy, and glad to have made it through the meander belt I’d stumbled into on the sinuous Dead Diamond. I wasn’t lost; just temporarily challenged, and threatened by the prospect of a November night in the woods and everybody at camp distracted.
Daniel Boone, who traversed more unknown territory than any of us will ever see, was asked if he’d ever been lost. “No,” he said. “Never been lost. But I’ve been pretty confused for a few days now and then.”
A friend showed up at my door the other day with a pair of old books: Thoreau’s “In the Maine Woods,” of which there are three or four around the house somewhere, and a little paper-bound booklet published by Houghton Mifflin in 1902. “In the Wilderness,” it’s called, by Charles Dudley Warner. The name rang a bell; it had something to do with the village in the Adirondacks, Keene Valley — where my nascent family got its start about 60 years ago. I googled him. Sure enough, he was one of the “summer folks” who started coming to the valley in the mid-1800s to rusticate. And write about it. Warner was a lawyer, editor and publisher, and a pal of Samuel Clemens, who was a pallbearer at his funeral in 1900. The mutual attraction was natural; they shared a wry, whimsical take on their adventures. Warner became well-known for his essays on his Adirondack adventures.
I started the book with the dread I almost always feel for recommended reading (college was a terrible trial) but within 15 minutes, Warner had me captivated, especially with his descriptions of the foolish optimism that occasionally got him “pretty confused.” I thought, “Oh! I’ve been there!”
My long-suffering, doughty buddy Baird and I once set out to climb two trail-less Adirondack peaks, Redfield and Cliff, on a day hike from Adirondak Loj. It was going to be a long day. But we were young and fit, and got up both in good shape. But somehow we contrived to descend the wrong side of Cliff, the second one. Breaking out of the thick woods at the bottom, I looked up and was struck by the sight of Algonquin Mountain not at all where it should have been. It was a long, long evening. (Some decades later, Baird and I dumped in a chilly Arctic river, but he still seems to trust me, if warily.)
Getting confused in the woods is surprisingly easy to do, and just as surprisingly frightening. The sky turns gray, wet or dark, and there are no celestial objects. You think you’re on one side of a ridge, but you’re not. Once, on an overnight winter climb of the Santanoni range in New York, we tackled its three peaks in a triangular pattern. We were a long way from anywhere and anybody else, so imagine our surprise when halfway up Panther Peak, we came across snowshoe tracks. In about five minutes, we realized they were ours: that like Pooh and Piglet, we were sharing the mountain with three Woozles. And those three Woozles had a hell of a time later, figuring out which tracks to follow back to their icy lean-to.
Warner enjoyed the distinction of occasionally being guided by a famous Keene Valley woodsman, Orson Schofield “Old Mountain” Phelps. Phelps was an occasional model for Winslow Homer, who summered in the valley at least once. I have a likeness of him on my office wall, a Homer watercolor titled “Old Friends.” He was famous for his oracular wit, but wasn’t considered a very good guide. Near the end of his life, he was “guiding” Warner and a friend through country he’d never been in before; and besides getting lost amid miles of swamps, began to collapse on the ground from time to time. The obvious anxiety in Warner’s account of the trip evokes in me a dozen memories, at least. But here I am still, able to recall that sinking feeling I sometimes had — especially once when the sky turned to oatmeal, and with darkness imminent, I turned it over to my old dog. “Tucker,” I asked. “Which way is home?” She knew.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.